It’s all about context

For the third year in a row, I was lucky enough to attend the ScienceOnline “unconference” in North Carolina.  This gathering of scientists, professors, journalists, editors, librarians and other interested folks is one of the most dense intellectual three days of the year.  With a wide variety of sessions and an extraordinary group of conference goers, it is easily my favorite conference.  Details of each of the sessions can be found on the conference wiki.

As I got back to work over the past week and a half, the sessions and hallway conversations from the conference kept rolling around in my head.  The consistent thing among everything at the conference seems to be the importance of context. A few examples from the conference and beyond:

  • Data – Without context, data is useless.  From something as simple as a unit or a label, to information about the procedure used to get the data.  One reason that scientists cite for their reluctance to share data is the concern that the data will be misused.  Without providing proper context, it is more likely to be misused, and scientists don’t want to spend their time adding metadata to their datasets, they want to spend their time doing science.  In addition, although I was excited about some of the new data sharing services that are springing up, some of them require very little metadata.  This is great if you don’t have a lot of time to upload the data, but slightly pointless if the data can’t be used because of the lack of context.
  • Popular science – I read a lot of science blogs and science news.  I read (ok, skim) a lot of scientific journal articles. In all these cases, the information needs a bit of context.  A classic example from after the conference is a press release about a new article discussing the origins of the Little Ice Age.  Most of the initial news reports failed to provide a good background to the story, largely because they were based on the press release.  Later posts and more in depth stories (from those who had read the journal article) were able to help us better understand where this information comes from.
  • Undergraduates and blogging – Along the same lines, I sat down with an undergraduate today to help her understand how to read a scientific article.  We talked a bit about what each section of the paper was likely to contain, and one of the most important things was context in the Introduction and Discussion.  Likewise, students need to understand the context of a blog post.  What is likely to be discussed?  Where can you find more information? What are the social norms of the blogging world?
  • The semantic web – This is all about context.  Nothing but context.  Just make it machine readable.  Ontologies can help make connections between data points and establish relationships between concepts.  Without context, it’s just a bunch of unrelated zeros and ones.
  • Altmetrics – Just like you need context with research data, measuring research output requires context.  Right now, many researchers have a vague idea of what a good impact factor in their field is.  Through hard work and effort, they have a sense of context.  For the new metrics, most researchers don’t yet have enough experience to be able to put them in context.  What does it mean that 4 folks mentioned your article on twitter or that 18 folks bookmarked your article on Mendeley.  Is that good?  Bad? Mediocre?
  • Managing Digital Information* – One big challenge here is to put this all in context.  That’s why we love email programs that put email messages into threads – we like seeing what came before and after.  How can we see what needs to be seen, ignore the things that can be ignored, and know how it all relates to one another?

I have heard my boss argue that one of the things that libraries are really good at is providing context, although we rarely put it in those terms.  Looking over the list I created above, I think it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

Folks in libraries and information centers create metadata, provide books and reference materials to help folks understand the context of the world around them, teach folks about online environments and explore new technologies.  We make lists and compare things, and provide tools to help manage digital information.

Yes, we are in the information business, but perhaps it is a bit more descriptive to say that we are in the business of providing context.


*I still can’t get over the irony of this session.  In front of a standing room only crowd, the moderators tried to engage us in a discussion of how to manage and deal with the information deluge, while at the same time we had laptop computers and smart phones open to catch every tweet and blog post about what was being said.